Here’s an 8-minute video clip and transcript of Rev Dr Robin Parry explaining the important differences between the Hebrew and Greek words “Sheol”, “Hades”, “Gehenna”, and “Tartarus”, which are translated “Hell” in many Bible translations. This was raised at Gospel Conversations’ Hope & Hell Conference.
In the Old Testament, Sheol is the realm of the dead. It’s a very murkily defined place, it’s dark, there are people there but they’re not really living. They are sort of conscious but they’re not. Nobody wants to be there and they don’t worship God there. It’s a bit of a dreary view of death.
Then it gets complicated because in the Second Temple Jewish period, you get different views arising. And that’s part of the debate: What’s behind the New Testament texts?
Hades is from Greek mythology but got imported to become the translation of Sheol. So Hades is sometimes just the word for Sheol and it’s this world of the dead. But it also, sort of, evolves in this Second Temple period to become a place where bad things happen, like in Greek mythology, nasty stuff happens in Hades. The only text in the New Testament that really deals with Hades like this is Luke 16—the parable of the “Rich man and Lazarus”—it’s Hades that they go to. What is this Hades? The rich man is in torment, he just wants a drop of water on his tongue. So that’s not just like the Old Testament Sheol, that’s developed. In the book of Revelation, at the end:
Then the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them; each one was judged according to their works. Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.Revelation 20:13-14, CSB
So Hades is where the dead people are. Given this passage, if the lake of fire is “hell”, and that’s the way we normally think, Hades isn’t “hell” in that text—Hades is like the “waiting place” until it’s thrown into the lake of fire and then it’s hell.
Gehenna is what Jesus talks about in most of the texts that are considered to be about hell. Gehenna (“Ben Hinnom Valley” in English) is the valley next to Jerusalem:
It’s a valley that had all sorts of associations in the Old Testament because it was associated with idolatrous sacrifice of children and so on. It was considered an unclean and despicable place in Jeremiah:
[The Judeans] have built the high places of Topheth in Ben Hinnom Valley in order to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, a thing I did not command; I never entertained the thought.
“Therefore, look, the days are coming”—the Lord’s declaration—“when this place will no longer be called Topheth and Ben Hinnom Valley, but the Valley of Slaughter. Topheth will become a cemetery, because there will be no other burial place.”Jeremiah 7:31-32, CSB
Gehenna becomes a place of judgment. God will bring judgment and there will be slaughter in Gehenna—there are lots of corpses there. The bit at the end of Isaiah 66, with all the worms and the fire, the corpses, which then become used by Jesus as a “hell” text about the worms that don’t die and so on. That is almost certainly dealing with imagery about Gehenna, with lots of corpses. I mean, they are dead, in Isaiah they are not conscious but they are in Jesus’ texts. So this is Gehenna, it’s a literal valley, which is associated with judgment, punishment, and so on.
There are debates around this. Were there strong Jewish views about Gehenna being postmortem punishment? Did Jesus feed off those views or did Jesus actually innovate? It’s complicated by the fact all of the Second Temple Jewish texts we have about Gehenna weren’t written down until after the time of Jesus. Was Jesus the first person to really use Gehenna as postmortem punishment? Did later Jewish texts pick up on this and take it in different directions? It also becomes complicated because the Second Temple Jews had different views about Gehenna. Some thought about it in terms of eternal torment, some thought about it in terms of annihilation, some thought you could get out of Gehenna. It wasn’t a fixed idea, it was a fluid image. It was an image that was used in different kinds of ways by different groups of Jewish people—Jesus one of them. So the question is, in what sense is Jesus using it? That becomes the issue in terms of interpretation and it’s difficult to set down a fixed background against which to interpret Jesus because it was a fluid notion. Also the problems of dating, etc. Anyway, this is getting a bit technical.
There is debate among New Testament scholars, as to whether Jesus is talking about a postmortem punishment at all. Tom Wright argues that Jesus is not talking about hell but the literal destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He’s warning about the dangers of literally being thrown into the valley next to Jerusalem when the Romans come. It might not even be that Jesus is talking about eschatological punishment there. When Paul talks about eschatological punishment he doesn’t use the language of Gehenna, it’s really restricted to Jesus who does that.
What about Tartarus? Well, this only occurs once in the New Testament:
For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned but threw them down into Tartarus and delivered them to be kept in chains of darkness until judgment;2 Peter 2:4, HCSB
This is a place in Greek mythology. The background to this is the story in Genesis of the Nephilim. There are all sorts of interpretation complications but this story becomes really big in the Second Temple period. 1 Enoch—which is a fantastic text and was very influential in early Christianity—sees these “Watchers” as divine beings who are thrown into Tartarus. Peter is saying that they are kept in Tartarus in everlasting chains until the Day of Judgment. The word there is not “aionios”, it is “aidios”, which does mean everlasting—it’s the only time it occurs in regards to punishment in the New Testament. And there it’s only the chains that are “eternal” so that these angels can’t escape judgment.
So Gehenna is maybe hell—or not if you’re Tom Wright. Hades is the realm of the dead—Sheol, but it might be more than that, it might be something that crosses over into hell in some texts but not in others. The whole thing is a bit of a mess. You’re asking for clarity but the problem is, it’s not terribly clear, and that’s one of the challenges in interpreting some of the Gospel and New Testament texts. Trying to make sense of it when the thought world at the time wasn’t conceptually clear in the way we’d like it to have been.